WASHINGTON - While the state of North Dakota has long required background checks for foster parents and other adults in foster homes, that’s not necessarily been the case on the state’s American Indian reservations, something Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said he hopes to change.
He and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., have introduced legislation to toughen foster parenting requirements in Indian Country. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., is a co-sponsor, as is Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo. Tester is chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, and Barrasso is the ranking member.
Hoeven and Heitkamp have been involved in working with the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation to improve child protection, following the highly publicized death of several children there.
But the children died while in the care of their families, in one case the child’s mother, in another the children’s cousin, and in still another, the child’s step-grandmother.
Still, Hoeven said he believes improving the foster care standards can only help save lives in the future.
“We need to do everything possible to make sure all of our children are safe and prevent abuse in the home,” Heitkamp said in a statement. An aide said she was on the floor of the Senate and could not speak to reporters when called. “This bill takes a solid step toward accomplishing that. Combined with my bill to create a Commission on Native Children, we can address many of the challenges facing Native children by reducing domestic violence and substance abuse, and setting our Native kids on a path to grow and succeed.”
The commission she referred to would study issues affecting Indian children – such as high rates of poverty, child abuse, crime and substance abuse – and make recommendations to help improve their lives. It would also look at programs and grants available.
Hoeven and Tester are sponsors of Heitkamp’s legislation.
If Hoeven’s legislation, called the Native American Children’s Safety Act, passed, it would require the Bureau of Indian Affairs to run background checks on all adults living in a prospective foster home. The foster home would have to undergo periodic background checks, which would lead to the detection of any adults who had not been screened.
An existing law requires that Indian children be placed with Indian households where possible, Hoeven said. “That’s another reason you need this law that I’m working to pass now because you’ve got to make sure you’ve got background checks done so that it’s a safe environment.”
Some advocates of reservation children’s safety have criticized the requirement for placement in Indian homes, saying that tribes have put children at risk to avoid placing them in non-Indian homes. The requirement is meant to preserve Indian culture.
Asked if his legislation would increase the workload of BIA agents without increasing funding, Hoeven said, “Obviously, if you ran the BIA, you’d understand you have responsibility to make sure the foster homes are safe. I don’t know that there’s what I would call a big cost associated with it. But to the extent there are costs, that’s something I would be willing to make sure we address in the appropriation process.”